On Oct. 31, 2018, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki reached out to Uchinānchu (ethnic Okinawans) in the diaspora and asked for our help. His call comes at a critical moment in Okinawan history. The next day, the Japanese government re-started construction of a new U.S. military base at Henoko, after 23 years of popular opposition in Okinawa.
Gov. Tamaki’s opposition to the new Henoko base, representative of the majority opinion of 58.2% of Okinawan residents, is not anti-American. Gov. Tamaki himself was born to a U.S. Marine in Okinawa; his very existence is intertwined with the U.S. and its bases. His recent landslide election victory on a platform of opposition to the Henoko plan is a popular response to a ridiculous situation.
Seventy percent of all U.S. military bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa, which makes up only 0.6% of total state territory. Whereas Okinawa was unavoidably dependent upon bases immediately after the devastation of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, they are now an economic burden to Okinawan people. In fact, studies show that if all the bases and their accompanying government subsidies were removed from Okinawa, its economy would improve.
Popular opposition to the Henoko plan is significant in these islands, which have been politically divided over base politics for decades, often tearing families apart. Gov. Tamaki’s predecessor, the late Gov. Takeshi Onaga, came from a politically conservative lineage but dissolved these artificial boundaries by declaring that what was important was “Identity, Not Ideology.”
The fact that Denny Tamaki is the first mixed-race governor in Japanese history is a watershed moment since mixed-race individuals and their Okinawan mothers have often been negatively associated with the bases. Gov. Tamaki’s diverse background resonates with many Uchinānchu, including throughout the diaspora who defy notions of purity. Many have also found it difficult to claim their Okinawan heritage due to Japanese assimilation efforts, particularly when it becomes tethered to political ideologies. Gov. Tamaki lifts these inhibitions.
Despite failing to build consensus with, make disclosures to, and be held accountable to Okinawa, the Japanese government is pushing ahead with reclamation work for the construction of the new base premised on arbitrary and unilateral changes in the legal interpretation of the Public Waters Reclamation Law. This is not a problem only pertaining to Henoko; it is a similar situation with the helipad construction that is already taking place in Takae.
Yet, at the same time, the situation is more complex. This is where the diaspora, and in particular, Uchinānchu living in the U.S., come in. Despite Gov. Tamaki’s call for a trilateral U.S.-Japan-Okinawa dialogue on this issue, the U.S. refuses to enter into talks with Okinawa, and instead treats it entirely as a “Japanese issue.” Many U.S. politicians do not even see a U.S. military base problem in Okinawa because they can only see Japan as the largest and most enthusiastic financial contributor to the U.S. military in the world (more than South Korea and Germany combined).
Hence, Gov. Tamaki’s call to the Uchinānchu diaspora is a demand to be recognized as a distinct Okinawan people who cannot be overshadowed by big governments. The voice of the Okinawan people should be heard not only in Japan, but also in the U.S. through the demands of Uchinānchu around the world. This is why Gov. Tamaki stated in reference to his impending visit to the U.S. next week:
“We are going to America to speak out about this ridiculous situation. We will ask, what would you think about the principles of democracy if the government acted this way despite the fact that the people have continually voiced their opposition? There are a lot of Uchinānchu in the diaspora. I want to use our worldwide Uchinānchu network to tackle this problem. We need for the people’s will to resonate at the grassroots; we need more democracy.”
Gov. Tamaki’s call to the diaspora stems from a long tradition of transnational Okinawan cooperation. From the first line of emigrants led by Kyūzō Tōyama to Hawai’i in 1899 prompted by the Japanese government’s land redistribution (jiwari), through immigration to Latin America, the Philippines, and Micronesia amidst the 1920 collapse of Okinawa’s sugar industry, known as the “Sago Palm Hell” (sotetsu jigoku), and to postwar emigration to Bolivia planned by the U.S. military, Okinawans throughout the diaspora have maintained connections and/or helped their relatives back home by sending remittances and aid.
The diaspora is a part of the Okinawa of today, which welcomes many young diasporic Uchinānchu home by providing scholarships and study tours, and by organizing the joyous Worldwide Uchinānchu Taikai celebration every five years. There are over 420,000 Okinawans in the diaspora compared to a population of 1.4 million in Okinawa Prefecture.
As citizens of the U.S. and other democracies, we must remind the world that Okinawa inherits a far richer legacy than that of military bases or Japanese prefectural status. Our history lies in the prosperous Ryukyu Kingdom, a formerly independent state that was a cornerstone of trade in the Asia Pacific, which had fully developed and sophisticated political, artistic, and spiritual traditions. As planetary citizens, we must remind the world of the ecological devastation the new base construction brings to Oura Bay, Henoko, home of the endangered dugong and delicate coral reefs.
We express our full support of Gov. Tamaki and the people of Okinawa. We recognize the potential in this crucial moment for restoring peace and prosperity in Okinawa.
Uchinānchu all over the world: Let us join with Gov. Tamaki in protecting Okinawa, for our future, and for the future of those who come after us.
Akiko Utu Cacaji (賀数ウトゥ章子), b. 1964, lives in Washington, D.C.; connected to Naha and Koza.
Joseph Yoshimasu Kamiya (神谷ジョセフ嘉益), b. 1987, lives in Los Angeles; connected to Tamagusuku and Awase.
David Kim, b. 1990, lives in Minneapolis; connected to Kitanakagusuku and Okinawa City.
Noriko Oyama (大山紀子), b. 1952, lives in Blairstown, N.J.; connected to Nakijin-son.
Annmaria Shimabuku (島袋まりあ), b. 1976, lives in New York City; connected to Hiyagon.
Emma Tome (当銘英麻), b. 1990, lives in Golden, Colo.; connected to Gushikawa (Uruma City).
Wesley Ueunten (上運天ウェスリー), b. 1960, lives in El Cerrito, Calif.; connected to Ahagun (Itoman-shi), Tobaru (Sashiki-cho), and Tosoe (Itarashiki, Yonabaru-cho).
Jane H. Yamashiro, b. 1972, lives in Berkeley; connected to Naha.
Ryan Masaaki Yokota (横田ライアン真明), b. 1972, lives in Chicago; connected to Nishibaru-magiri (Nishihara-cho).